Friday, July 30, 2010

Full Moon Madness, the Marriage of Shiva & Parvati – Hampi, India: A Photo Story

Ahhh Full moon time.  Dogs howl, backpackers go crazy on a Thai beach, men turn into werewolves and, apparently, the gods are more apt to hear all our pleas.  At least in Hinduism this is the case.  All things ‘auspicious’ happen on full moons so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of the ‘Big Three’ Hindu gods (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu) would get hitched up when the celestial body is at it’s brightest.

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The festival is knows as the Virupaksha Cart Festival, Virupaksha being the name of the main temple in Hampi and one of Shiva’s many forms.  The festival is a celebration of the marriage between Shiva and Pavarti, his beloved wife who together bore the famous half Elephant/half Man God – Ganesh.  The day begins with everyone heading to the rivers edge for bath time.


Shortly after bath time, many pilgrims set up stalls selling various items.  Colorful powders mixed with water create the paste that you see adorning many peoples foreheads.  During festival times, the powders are used a bit more liberally and extend well beyond just the top of the head.



Festivals are also a good time to get a little grooming done.



If a child has a shaven head however, we were told that that is a symbol that their mother died.  In a nation of over 1 billion people and swelling, humanity reaches it limits and the harsh realities of life are present almost daily.

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Pakoras are always available – breaded and deep fried veggies.


Bananas are used as offerings for the festival.


Hours before the start of the ceremony, Lakshmi is still hard at work, giving out blessings for a few rupees.  You hold out a coin, any coin will do, and she will scoop it up with her trunk, pat you on the head and hand the coin to her handler.  Elephants are big eaters as you might could imagine and the cost of feeding them is not cheap. 




The religious aspects of the festival involve the temple building two large carts, or vehicles, as tall as 3-4 stories high.  Both are then ornately decorated in flowers and colorful swaths of fabrics.  On festival day, the images of the two gods are moved from the temple to the top of the carts.  Temple attendants set up below the carts blessing worshipers by cracking coconuts over the cart where the pilgrims then drink the water.  The Sadus (holy men) ‘ride’ while thousands of worshipers pull the carts from one end of the bazaar to the other.  The crowds below chuck bananas at the cart attempting to hit the little room at the top holding the images.  The ground quickly becomes covered in banana pulp, peels and coconut water.  At least it’s organic.


We found a balcony and watched the swell of people below.  Large wedges are placed below the wheels all the crowd of men jump on top to get the carts moving.  Over 200 men and one cute elephant join together to make the wheels turn.  In between the carts men dance around to the beat of drums.  The whole scene is a crazy mesh of flying bananas, powdered colors and grabby Indian men.  Word to the women – be prepared to be touched if you throw yourself into a festival in India.  You notice the absence of local women in the crowd – there is a reason for that.



Of course, a party is not complete without a Holy Elephant.  In steps Lakshmi leadng the way.  Dressed in her full regalia, the lovely lady parts the crowd like no other, collecting bananas along the way.

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With all that partying and colorful powders thrown through the air, even the largest of land animals needs a bath!  Next post – Bath time with Lakshmi…PG rated of course.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Monkeyin’ Around on the Beautiful Boulders of Hampi, India

Destination:  Hampi, India

Number of days spent:  5

Best Restaurant:  Mango Tree was one of the better cafe/restaurants in India for travelers.  Set on the banks of the river, the multilevel, open air, sit on the floor layout was our hangout for several blistering hot afternoons.  We highly recommend the veg thali! 

Best of:  Meandering lazy river cutting through a rock strewn landscape, Sacred Hindu temples, Lakshmi the Elephant

Worst of:   Fearing her expensive Chaco’s might get taken at the temples, Tracy had switched out to her new sandals she had just purchased in Mumbai.  Less than a week later they were no more.  As we were being blessed by Lakshmi, her sandals were stolen.  One more nail in the “India is the worst place in the world” coffin (an opinion which we have since changed).

Most memorable:    In two separate posts forthcoming – Our time with Lakshmi and the Car (Cart) Festival, Hampi’s largest festival of the year. 

Useful Tip:  No charges for going #1 at the train station, going #2 (or higher?) however will set you back a few ruPEE’s :-)  Unfortunately the train station is 10 miles away in Hospet.  Avoid the taxi touts and instead take the local bus between the two towns!  Once you get off the bus shake the touts to get a better price on accommodation :-)  We recommend non-Lonely Planet places to stay…we checked out all of the LP picks and they were really dingy.  Instead we opted for a cleaner (and cheaper) place that just opened.  Sadly we can’t remember the name. 


Leaving the insanely crowded streets of Mumbai we head to quieter environs in Hampi.  Historical, Religious and Scenic Hampi is a heavy hitter on all three accounts making it a must stop for many.  Hampi’s story begins in the most popular Hindu play, the Ramayana, serving as the monkey kingdom with Hanuman as King.  During the 13th-16th centuries, Hampi grew to one of the largest Hindu empires ever swelling to over 500,000 people.  But things never stay happy for long and the unrest grew until Hampi was razed down to the boulders and never recovered.

Today, the handful of people living in Hampi village are there primarily for tourism.  The entire area is now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list including the village creating a sticky situation.  The funding to improve the temples and to make the place more attractive to tourists is dependent upon the locals moving out of the older Bazaar area, no small feat considering generations of people have lived in the space and are now realizing the benefits of tourism.

It may be the collection of temples and ruins that caught the attention of UNESCO, but it’s the dramatic scenery that brought the hippies in the 60’s and continues to draw them today.  Boulders intertwined with stone temples all strung together by a meandering stream all combine to create a peaceful and relaxing vibe.  Whether you come here to play, explore ruins, or just chill out and relax Hampi can entertain for several days.



Dominating and visible from anywhere in town is the Virupaksha Temple, the most important temple in Hampi and one of the most important in all of Karnataka state.  Dedicate to Shiva, the temple is site to Hampi’s most important festival of the year, the Virupaksha Cart (Car) Festival as well as the adorable Lakshmi – both worthy of separate posts. 

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Aside from the religious importance, the area is also host to a number of baths and palaces known collectively as the Royal Center.  With the sites spread out over several Km’s, the best way to see them is by bicycle.  We set out that morning intending to see it all on our own but at the first stop we met up with a guide who spoke excellent english and the price was ok so we tagged along. The guide was set up through the tourist office so it was legit as India gets…but we both felt at the end that the guide could have been a bit more polite to our fellow riders…it was still a worthy endeavor.

Highlights of the ruins include numerous baths that are well tended to, a few temples including one that has an underground pool, and the royal Elephant stables – which at one time housed over 20 elephants. 

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Despite their age, or perhaps because of, worship still continues till this day.    Offerings and Sadus still abound praying to mainly Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman and a host of other Gods. 

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Heading down the river on the Bazaar side reveals even more temples and perhaps the highlight of all the area temples – the Vittala Temple.  The path takes you over boulders, down to the river banks and back up so a bike is next to impossible to use to make the 2km trip.  For a little more adventurous way, one could take a coracle ride - an oversized basket that looks like a stiff breeze could capsize it.  The pilgrims walk, so we opted to do the same.

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The temple is in excellent condition for its age making it the highlight of 15th century Hindu art in southern India.  The main temple’s pillars reverberate and ‘sing’ different tones when tapped.  For obvious reasons this part is off limits. In the main courtyard sits a massive stone chariot complete with turning marble wheels.  Now we know why they needed 20 elephants!


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Not templed out yet?  Head over the river to the other side for a much more subdued atmosphere.  While the Bazaar area has been somewhat overrun by tourism, the other side of the river has remains relatively quiet.  The main draw on this side is the Hanuman temple.  Sitting high on the hill, nearly 600 steps up, is a whitewashed temple dedicated to the Money King. According to the Ramayana, this side of the river was the Monkey kingdom – Kishkinda.  The temple itself is very low key but the view makes all those steps in the blistering heat worth it.  As with nearly everywhere in India, curiosity inflicts in the hearts of many, mostly men, and on a narrow path there is not much escaping the “20 questions” game along with the “one photo please”. 

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What would a Monkey temple be without a couple of monkeys hanging out?  Cheeky little things expect all passerby’s to have bananas for them and whether you have them or not – they come.  They chase.  They grab.  Cheeky, and yes, this is my shirt with the paw print.

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For many visitors to Hampi, it is the majestic sun setting over the boulder strewn landscape that leaves the most lasting impression.  It became our nightly ritual to try and find the best place for sunset.  Somehow we never could get it to work out, but a few options came out ok.



The last couple of days we were there, the pilgrims started to pour in for the festival.  These pilgrims are poor but devoted.  They arrive either by foot or crammed into the back of pickups and sleep the nights on the side of the rocks above the temple without shower, cover, or A/C.  Seemingly overnight, the hillside became a mini city with old men and women chatting and praying and youth blaring their favorite tunes out over the broken and crackling speakers on their cell phones.  Hey, who needs to shower and shave when you have cell phone entertainment?

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After discovering that a festival was going to happen we opted to hang out a couple of extra days to check it out.  Next post – the Cart Festival!